“You seem rather attached to that cat, Anders,” Nathaniel observed as they wound the pathway toward the rising city of Amaranthine mid-morning on the next day.
“It’s more that he’s attached to me, isn’t that right Ser Pounce-a-lot?” She swore that cat spoke the Common tongue. It was always answering him when he posed questions, as if the two of them communicated on some level she didn’t quite understand.
“Are you going to take it with you everywhere you go? Isn’t that a little dangerous?”
“Ser Pounce can handle himself, can’t you, Kitty?” It meowed again. “He’s much tougher than he looks.”
“Isn’t that name a little ridiculous?”
“What do you think I should call him? Frederick?”
Nathaniel sighed, and though she wasn’t facing the two of them, she imagined he rolled his eyes in that exasperated fashion he was so fond of doing. “There are worse names, I suppose.”
“Maybe I should call him Nate… Little Nate…”
“Did she… Commander, did you…?”
“No, that doesn’t suit him at all. He’s not broody enough.”
“I am not broody.”
“You’re certainly not a fluffy ball of cheer and sunshine like Ser Pounce-a-lot, that’s for sure. Does that whole broody thing get you a lot of women, Howe?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d be interested in how many women you’ve bedded.” Arabelle shot a wicked glare over her shoulder at Anders. The mage shrugged, a nonchalant air about him as he continued to poke the beast. “Or do you prefer men?”
“Are you trying to seduce me, Anders? If so, I urge you to desist now. I’m just not that kind of man, and even if I were, you’re hardly my type.”
“So, are you saying you are that kind of man, but you’re not that into me, or…”
“I’d be more inclined to court your cat, but only if it was called Lady Pounce-a-lot.”
“Then you like ladies. That’s good to know.”
“No one, I mean I don’t know. If I ever have any friends who are into men without a sense of humor, I’ll be sure to send them your way.”
“I hardly think I need your assistance in that department, so, please don’t.”
They bickered on, back and forth, as they climbed the short hill leading to the city gates. Refugees lingered just beyond those gates, cups and hands outstretched, seeking coin and charity. Arabelle always brought a full pouch of gold and silver when they visited Amaranthine, passing out what she could to every one of the refugees who asked. She hated the notion of all those people suffering, hated thinking of anyone going hungry while she returned to Vigil’s Keep at the end of each day to find a hot meal and a warm bed waiting for her to crawl into.
“Why do you do that?” Velanna sneered over her shoulder as they passed by the last family of beggars just in front of the gate. “Just throw your coin around to anyone unwilling to make a better life for themselves.”
“Because no one should go hungry, Velanna.”
“But handing out gold… Doesn’t that just encourage them to go on begging for more? Breed a sense of laziness and entitlement that eventually leads to a refusal to take their own fate in their hands and wrestle a better life into submission?”
“These people cannot gain entry to a better life right now. The guard won’t let them pass through the gates to access the shops or their families within the city. Until they are able to get inside, they must have something…”
“And it’s up to you to give it to them? All of them? Your soft touch is…”
“Admirable?” Anders suggested.
“I was going to say pathetic, but who am I to judge?”
“That’s right,” Nathaniel chimed in. “Who are you to judge, Velanna? You’re a vile murderer who shoots first and asks questions later.”
“The two of you actually have quite a bit in common, only someone stopped you from murdering first and asking questions later, I suppose.”
Ignoring Anders’s slight, he went on to ask, “How many innocents died at your hand? How many of these families were broken, children gone hungry because you killed their merchant fathers in the Wending…”
“Oh for the love of Andraste, everyone just stop it!” Arabelle threw up her hands in exasperation. “If I choose to give alms to the poor that is my business. You don’t have to like it, Velanna, and I’m not asking you to do the same, but please do shut up about it.”
“Commander,” she nodded submission and turned her head downward. The tightness of her mouth suggested a wounding of the pride, something Velanna needed more of if she was ever going to stop blaming the Shemlen for every single thing that was wrong with her life.
She’d known a lot of elves in her time. Before becoming Hero of Ferelden, most of them had been servants in Castle Cousland, people she’d not thought much about beyond their station, but her friendship with Zevran, her time among the Dalish and in the alienage of Denerim, had severely altered her perspective. She’d been ashamed the first time she realized she’d never quite thought of them as people. That some part of her had actually believed she was better than they were. She’d been a spoiled little fool who took her entire life for granted, and she never wanted to be that kind of woman again.
She saw that same warped view in every one of Velanna’s narrow-minded rants, and though she wanted desperately to change the other woman’s perspective, she was beginning to think it an impossible task.
Velanna was too angry, too broken and conditioned to feel anything but hate. She wasn’t sure someone like her could ever be anything else but damaged, but she refused to give up on trying to make friends with her, to show her not all humans were vile, despicable monsters who wanted to enslave or control her people.
“Good afternoon, Commander,” the guard captain tipped his head to her as they passed through the gates. “I hope all is well with you.”
“As well as can be expected, Captain. Good day.”
They headed left, down into the merchant square. It bustled with patrons, noisy bodies flitted this way and that, inspecting wares, haggling for better prices. Arabelle had no idea how they were meant to find a single woman amidst all those bustling bodies, especially considering Nathaniel hadn’t seen his sister in almost a decade, but she was definitely willing to give it a shot.
“Maybe we should ask around,” she suggested. “See if any of the merchants know your sister.”
“That’s a good idea,” he agreed, and so they moved through the throngs, stopping at stalls, asking questions, Nathaniel describing his sister—though poorly, considering it had been so long since last he’d seen her.
It was a surprise when the woman approached them, her shoulder black length hair whispering across her face as she shook her head in disbelief and declared, “Nathaniel?” There was no mistaking their relation. They had the same incredible eyes, grey with flecks of stunning green, like the sea.
“Delilah?” he gasped, his voice a husky whisper of uncertainty and hope. “Is that… really you?”
“Nathaniel, I had feared the worst.” She surged forward, arms stretched wide before enveloping him in desperate and happy embrace. Nathaniel’s face once more alight, he squeezed the young woman until she squeaked.
Arabelle had not seen Delilah either, not since the summer the Howes came to Castle Cousland for holiday. She was having a hard time picturing the tall and graceful woman before her as the same gangly, knobby-kneed playmate she’d sat in the courtyard of Castle Cousland playing dollies with all those years ago.
When he finally withdrew from her embrace, he shook his head as he stepped back to take her in and said, “Times must have been hard, Delilah, but you can do better than this. Come back to the estate until we find somewhere else.”
“What?” The lightness of her laughter echoed above the business of the market square. “Oh, Nathaniel. I didn’t marry Albert out of desperation. I adore him. I was so glad to get away from Father’s evil, this life is so much better.”
“Father’s evil?” Some of the lightness waned from his face, his brow furrowing with darkness and confusion. “Isn’t that overstating things a little? He got caught up in politics…”
“You weren’t here. You didn’t see what he did, Nathaniel. You want the culprit who destroyed our family? It was him, without question.”
“I… had no idea.”
“Of course you did, but you always worshipped Father, right from when you were a little boy.”
Arabelle didn’t know why, but hearing someone else say that out loud, confirming what she’d suspected, only made her feel worse about killing the man. Yes, Rendon Howe was a wretched, disdainful curse upon the world, but he had a son who thought he could do no wrong. Someone who loved him unconditionally, despite the wretch he was.
“Come, brother. Let us sit and catch up a bit, shall we?”
He turned a questioning gaze toward Arabelle and she nodded acquiescence. “We’ll be in the Chantry when you’re finished here. I’m sure the two of you have much to say to each other, so take your time.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
“The Chantry?” Anders complained as they wove their way through the crowd. “Why are we going to the Chantry?”
“It’s quiet there,” she shrugged. “And I’d like to ask for the Revered Mother’s blessing.”
“It’s quiet in the tavern too, you know, and there are probably less Templars. Especially at this hour. And why would you need a blessing when you could have a pint?”
“Go to the tavern if you like, and while you’re there maybe you could ask around about Kristoff?” she shrugged.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Right. I’ll come find you when Nathaniel’s finished visiting with his sister, just don’t… make a drunken fool of yourself or start any trouble.”
“Me? Start trouble. Surely, you jest.”
“I mean it, Anders. Stay out of trouble.”
“It sure is good to see you back to your old self again, Commander.”
“As much as I loathe his company, I think I will join him in the tavern. I have no desire to visit your Chantry,” Velanna declared.
“As you like. I’ll find you both in a little while.”
She wove her way through the city and its people, watching the waifish children splash and play in the fountains, eying the homeless, ragged people panhandling and drifting aimlessly through the streets. When she at last came upon the Chantry, she hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at the building and debating her choice to seek absolution.
What she and Alistair had was a sin in the eyes of the Maker; they’d joked about it a dozen or more times, that according to the sisters he should have been struck by lightning after they made awkward love that first time. It was a wonder, in time, their rampant and insatiable need for one another had not drawn an army of desire demons marching through the veil they’d surely torn asunder once they learned how to actually please one another with a lot of practice, experimentation and effort. He even teased her once, remarking, “It’s a good thing you’re not a mage. This could be serious trouble…”
She’d been in the Chantry plenty of times since then, but part of her always felt hesitant when she approached, as if the Maker Himself was judging her from on high and shaking his head at her unworthiness and fleshly weakness. So she wandered for over an hour, circling back around, staring up at the Chantry, hesitating. At last she only agreed to climb the steps because she promised Nathaniel he would find her there when he was finished visiting with his sister. She took the stairs one by one and found herself gasping surprise to see an old, familiar friend passing through the doors.
“Wynne?” she stammered. She’d thought the old mage had gone off to the Tevinter Imperium, where she’d ventured with Shale after the archdemon was slain to see if there was some old magic powerful enough to return the golem to an earthly body.
“Oh!” she clutched her chest in surprise. “It is so good to see you, my friend. I contemplated visiting you at Vigil’s Keep, but then things got… so busy.”
It sounded like an excuse, a quickly drawn veil to hide her discomfort at their unexpected meeting at the top of the Chantry stairs. Wynne had been almost as flabbergasted by Alistair’s last-minute decision as Arabelle herself, mourning the boy she’d said more than once reminded her of her estranged son, Rhys.
“Yes, I’ve been very busy too. Chances are you would have missed me if you had visited. I’m rarely there, it seems. So, what’s happening?”
“The College of Magi is convening in Cumberland and I must attend. Hopefully all this will blow over before it’s begun.”
“You mean the talking darkspawn?”
“Talking dark… Oh Maker’s Mercy! Is that what brought you here? My word,” she shook her head. “Will this madness never end?”
“You mean that’s not why you’re here, then?”
“No, I came looking for someone, but I shan’t trouble you with that business. You have enough on your plate as it is.”
“Don’t be silly, Wynne. If there’s some way I can help you at all, just say the word and it is done.”
“Very well, then perhaps you should know that something stirs within the fraternities. The Libertarians wish to pull away from the Chantry. And if they get enough support…”
“That sounds very bad,” she noted. “Why would they do that?”
“Well, it could turn out to be nothing, but keep your ear to the ground anyway.”
“Absolutely, I will.”
“Thank you, Arabelle.”
Her smile was warm, as always, but inside her eyes there were so many unsaid things. Was one of them blame? Anger? Did she hate her for allowing Alistair to sacrifice himself when it should have been her? It was her duty, her responsibility…
“You are always willing to do what needs to be done, even when you hardly have time to indulge every little thing that comes your way. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you. You find a way to do it all, no matter how exhausting it is.” She surprised her then by reaching out and grasping Arabelle’s hand, the warm, leathery feel of her skin both a comfort and a shock. “How are you holding up? I’ve meant so many times to write, but… I would be lying if I claimed I actually knew what to say. There… It just seems there are no words for what we all went through sometimes.”
“No words at all,” she agreed.
She reveled in the feel of her friend’s touch, never wanting to let go of the hand of a woman who’d taken on an almost motherly role through the trials and tribulations of her life during the Blight. And then when all was said and done, Wynne’s own grief had shut her off entirely, and they’d barely said a word to one another at all before she departed from Denerim after the funeral.
“Is Zevran here as well? Did he travel with you to Vigil’s Keep?”
“No, he wanted to come with me, but I convinced him to take care of his… personal business so he could truly be free. I would have gone with him, but then this… I haven’t heard from him since we parted ways, but I pray for him every time I’m in the Chantry. Oghren’s here though. He’s a Grey Warden now.”
“You don’t say.”
“I know, it surprised me too, but he’s really quite good at killing things, especially darkspawn.”
“Well, then I am glad to hear you have a friend in all of this. Look, Arabelle, I… I feel I owe you an apology, my dear. I put unnecessary distance between us after… everything, and I realized when it was altogether too late that you needed me then, and I wasn’t there for you. You must… You must think me an awful friend.”
“Not at all. It was stunning. Unexpected. No one really got to say goodbye to him and we all loved him so very much, Wynne.”
“What was not to love?”
“I guess I deserved your distance, after what I allowed him to do…”
“Is that… Do you really think that’s why I put distance between us, my dear one? Because I blamed you? Oh, Arabelle, that’s absurd.” The familiarity of her scolding tone was an old comfort, almost as wonderful as the placating touch and squeeze of her gentle hand. “I don’t blame you. I don’t even blame him. He made the noblest of sacrifices for all of us because that was just the kind of man he was. Steadfast in his duty as a Grey Warden right until the last. I just wish… I don’t know. Sometimes I find myself wishing there’d only been another way. Some way to save both of you. After everything, well, it all just seemed so unfair. That must sound juvenile of me.”
But there had been another way… No one knew that but her and Alistair… and Morrigan, who would likely never forgive her for denying her and her mother their old god child. If only she’d pushed him harder, told him it was what she really wanted… Maybe, just maybe, he’d be standing there beside her.
“Well, as everyone keeps telling me, the Maker works in mysterious ways. For whatever reason, it must have been part of His plan, His grand design.”
“If only it was as easy to believe that nonsense as it is to say it.” Wynne squeezed her hand again, patting to tops of her knuckles before withdrawing it. “Just as it is easy for everyone outside of you to tell you not to blame yourself. Even now, I still see it in your eyes, but it was not your fault, child. It was his duty, just as it was yours, and no matter which one of you took up the gauntlet when all was said and done, this world would be both richer and poorer for having lost an amazing and selfless soul.”
Belle closed her eyes for a moment. She felt the stinging of unshed tears tickling inside her nose, wetting her lashes. She pinched her lips tight together, until she could feel her teeth threatening to burst through her lips and draw the coppery flood of blood to her taste buds.
“Thank you, Wynne. I don’t know why, but I really needed to hear that today.”
And then Wynne was hugging her, the familiarity and warmth of her embrace nearly pushing her over the edge of an emotional chasm she wasn’t sure she was ready to plummet into just yet. She awkwardly patted the other woman’s back, memorized the comforting smell of her as she pressed her cheek to her shoulder, and waited for the moment to pass.
She would not yield to painful sobbing. She would not give way to all those things she didn’t want to feel. She would not release the writhing, tentacled kraken of emotion hovering just beneath the surface and striving to free itself. She’d cried enough in Redcliffe, on poor Teagan’s shoulder. She’d blamed herself, berated herself, hated herself. The only way to free herself was to let all of that go; she knew that, but she wasn’t ready. She might never be ready, and somehow she was okay with that. She deserved to suffer, and no amount of motherly love and comfort would lessen her belief in that fact.
When Wynne finally drew away, Arabelle felt the wind on her cheek, cooling the single tear she’d allowed to slip down her face. Reaching upward, she quickly brushed it away and sniffled a little as she avoided making eye contact.
“You will get through this, child. I know you don’t believe that now. I can see in your eyes that you’re not ready to accept the truth, but you will endure because you know in your heart he would want you to. That it was so you might endure that he sacrificed himself.”
“I would much rather we’d endured together.”
“There you are, Commander.” Nathaniel’s voice arrived over her shoulder, startling her from that rare, emotional place she didn’t like anyone to see her endeavor into. Most especially not Nathaniel. “I’m sorry I was gone so long…”
“You’re fine, Nathaniel. You deserved the time you took. Wynne, it was nice to see you, but we should be going. We have much to do.”
“Of course,” the old mage smiled. “I need to be on my way myself, but if you do have time in your travels, perhaps you could do me one small favor?”
“Absolutely, name it.”
“One of my colleagues, Ines, has spent the last few months in the Wending Wood. The Circle has been unable to reach her, given the trouble in the arling. If you happen to come across her in your travels, perhaps you could tell her about the meeting of the College.”
“What’s she doing in the Wending Wood?”
“Oh, who knows? Rooting around in the dirt for some obscure plant or other, most likely. She has a keen interesting in gardening. Oh, I’m sorry, I meant botany. Hobbies and eccentricities aside, Ines is a well-respected mage and voice of reason, something we could use on our side.”
“We’re always finding reasons to venture into the Wending Wood. If we happen upon her, I will certainly pass on the message.”
“Thank you, my dear. The hour grows late, however, and I must go now. It was so wonderful to see you again. Take care, my friend, and please, write.”
“I will,” she promised.
They embraced again, and for a moment she didn’t think she could will her arms to let go. Wynne was something familiar, something strong, something she wanted to hold onto and never let go of. She was a connection to the one thing she never wanted to disconnect herself from, even though she knew she was no longer tethered to it. To him…
Arabelle stood in the center of the chantry landing, watching her friend walk away, almost completely oblivious to Nathaniel standing beside her until he coughed and brought her back to the moment.
“How was your visit with Delilah?”
“She wants me to come back.” His face was still alight and glowing when she turned to look at him. He almost sounded as though he didn’t believe it, that he had family again after spending months believing all was lost. “Once all this is done. Meet her husband. She’s due by spring.”
“She’s with child? That’s wonderful news.”
“I’m going to be an uncle. I can hardly believe it. She seems happy.” He laughed, as if a part of him couldn’t fathom how she could have found that kind of bliss while living in the dregs with a commoner. “She said a great many things, however, things I’m not sure I know how to take. She said our father deserved to die.” She watched his eyes darken, the lids growing heavy as he cast them downward to stare at the stone courtyard beneath their feet. At last he raised those stormy eyes of his toward her, squinted and narrowed and expectant. He wanted confirmation. He wanted to hear her say the words, that his father deserved to die. When she didn’t offer them, he shook his head and confessed, “I still can’t believe it.”
“You don’t believe her?”
Disbelief entwined with desperation and anger. “I thought he had his reasons. It was a war for Andraste’s sake. Before I went to the Free Marches…” Had he forgotten that night they hid and spied and listened to their parents plot Nathaniel’s future? Once he reached the Free Marches, had he somehow managed to convince himself it wasn’t a father’s cruelty that took him to that place? That sent him away from his brother and sister? “…he was never… How could he have changed so much?”
“Maybe he was never who you thought he was.”
“I suppose not.” He grew stiffer, the light of his joy at finding his sister awash with darkness and grave uncertainty. “I wish I’d known some of this sooner. I feel like such a fool.”
It would do her no good to point out she’d tried to tell him while defending her actions to him in the dungeon. Who was she but an outsider, an enemy, a Cousland? What right had she to tell him what kind of man his father had been?
“It’s not your fault, Nathaniel.”
“Please, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let’s get back to our business. I need… I need some time to think.”
“Of course.” And he fell into step just behind her as the two of them marched down the stairs, away from the Chantry.
She never did receive her blessing from the Revered Mother.